Monday, April 18, 2011

Barabbas and Jesus

Each day this week there will be a short-to-medium length post dealing with some aspect of the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Today we will be looking at the character of Barabbas.

Not much is known of him, though all four Gospels attest to this story within the narrative. In Mark 15:6-7 we are told, “Now at that feast he [Pilate] released unto them one prisoner, whomsoever they desired. And there was one named Barabbas, which lay bound with them that had made insurrection with him, who had committed murder in the insurrection.”

It is interesting to note that Barabbas’ name essentially just means “son” (bar) and “abba” (father), which would have been a common Semitic surname. Additionally, Mark’s usage of the definite article indicates he expected or assumed his readers would know precisely the insurrection to which he was referring.[1] However, why would the people prefer a murderer and a thief (cf. John ) to a man who worked miracles?

Of course, most of my readers are already familiar with the story: each year at Passover, Pilate (who wanted to appease the insurrection-happy Jewish subjects in the area) released to the people a prisoner (also presumably Jewish). Pilate evidently was counting on the people asking to release Jesus; hence he could claim he tried all he could, but the people wanted Jesus (and surely they would want him over Barabbas!). As it turns out, the chief priests were sure to convince the others in the group that Barabbas should be released ().

I have two plausible suggestions for why people would prefer Barabbas to Jesus (indeed, it is highly plausible that there is a measure of truth to both explanations). First, Barabbas committed murder in an insurrection. An insurrection was an uprising against the Roman government by a Jewish contingent. They viewed themselves as freedom fighters or displacement services for an oppressive regime. For many Jews and simply on the face of it, Barabbas may have easily been viewed as somewhat of a hero, especially to those who were unfamiliar with him (possibly due to the large swelling of Jerusalem to accommodate those Jews from outside of the area for Passover [since every good Jew traveled to the Temple to offer a lamb]). This leads to the second explanation.

Since there were so many Jews from out of town it is quite possible many of them present had never heard of Jesus or were relatively unfamiliar with him. It is also likely there were only a fraction of the Jews present in the city within the multitude. In these cases, the chief priests would have had little trouble in framing the issue: “here we have a man who claims to be God! He is a blasphemer and thus worthy of death! Would you go against the priests of God and God himself?!” This kind of intimidation and explanation easily accounts for the people choosing Barabbas over Jesus. They probably either viewed it as the lesser of two evils, or perhaps even more perversely, as a hero being set free while a blasphemer gets what he deserves.

In Matthew 27:25 (a parallel passage), the people present cry out, “His blood be on us, and on our children!” This is in reference to Deuteronomy 19:1-10, where a man who was “not worthy of death” is killed, the ones who allow it bear the blood (or the guilt) of the act. Essentially, these people were so convinced of Jesus’ guilt they were saying “if he is innocent, hold us responsible.” Jesus was indeed innocent; his death and Resurrection provided the payment for sins and the promise of the fulfillment of future salvation. Praise God!

                [1] William Lane Craig, “Question #169,”, accessed April 18, 2011.


  1. Great post Randy! It also just occured to me that this is yet another example (of which there are many in the bible)of the theme of the guilty being set free and the innocent punished in his place.

  2. Thanks Greg! Indeed, this theological truth is exactly why some (like Richard Carrier) don't think the story is accurate. But it hardly follows that because a detail of a story is useful as an illustration of that story, that therefore the detail is made up! If I tried to relay to you how nasty a checkout lady was at the grocery store today and I provided the detail that she made a snide remark to the cutomer in front of me after he left, someone like Carrier would say, "yes, how convenient. I bet he put that in there just to show she was mean!" Yes, I did! But it doesn't then follow the detail is more plausibly false than true. :) OK end rant.

  3. I have always heard that this event of releasing a prisoner was pretty sketchy. Is there any early reference outside of the Gospels for this tradition by Pilate or a contemporary? I get the impression that many critical scholars view this event as legendary or at least with a fair amount of skepticism.

  4. There is independent attestation in the Gospel of John (it also helps to recognize no scholar believes John's Gospel is dependent in any way upon Mark, the other synoptics, or the same source Mark may have used). However, outside of this, there's not any conclusive evidence of which I am currently aware (though there is the Gospel of Peter--though the stories are clearly legendary, there are multiple actual historical details). Though we shouldn't be surprised: we have so little from that time period, that multiple attestation is considered to be very valuable! In any case, it is also quite reasonable. No one ever questioned Mark's account (or Matthew's) of Pilate releasing a prisoner at the time of the passover. One would think Mark would be loathe to put in something that was considered usual just twenty years before while it was also unheard of!


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